Dr. Mary Tillman

Dr. Mary Tillman

Word in black HEALTH

Relationships, in my opinion, are not by accident. Every individual in my past or present is there for a particular reason and that season of my life has a purpose, whether I understand it or not.

I have had the great fortune of meeting some dynamic people who supported me, mentored me, or who provided comedic relief when I needed it most. Dr. Mary Tillman was an example of a person who made an indelible impression upon me and helped shape me into the medical professional that I am today. 

I did not have Black female physician role models growing up. To be honest, I don’t think I met a Black female doctor until I was in medical school, but they were nothing like Dr. Tillman, a proud graduate of Howard University.

Dr. Tillman and I had a lot in common. We both attended an HBCU, we both married our college sweethearts, and we both were members of a sorority. After meeting Dr. Tillman, I knew after whom I wanted to emulate my career. 

Dr. Tillman had a lot of firsts in her career. She was the first female president of Mound City Medical Forum, the local affiliate of the National Medical Association. I had the honor of also serving as president and would often call upon Dr. Tillman for support and advice. She was always willing to assist with her time, talent, and treasure. 

Dr. Kanika Cunningham, director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health also shared her thoughts on Dr. Tillman’s legacy.

“Dr. Mary Tillman was a trailblazer, a phenomenal pediatrician for the St. Louis region,” Dr. Cunningham said.

“I met her at a women’s luncheon at Cardinal Ritter College prep in October 2021 in which she provided a wealth of knowledge to the younger Black female physicians in the audience. I admired her legacy, her deep understanding of the history of medicine in St. Louis and her ongoing struggle on behalf of Black physicians during that time.

“I am grateful for her laying the foundation for future Black physicians like me in St. Louis. She will be missed but her legacy will continue to flourish.”

Dr. Mary Tillman shared advice

Dr. Mary Tillman shared advice with three Black women doctors during an inaugural brunch at Cardinal Ritter College Prep on Oct. 31, 2021. The event brought Black female physicians together from St. Louis and Metro East.

Dr. Tillman trained at the famous Homer G. Phillips Hospital here in St. Louis. She, along with Dr. Garey Watkins, Dr. Nathaniel Murdoch, and several former nurses would often participate in a panel I hosted for Saint Louis University School of Medicine students.

The stories she would tell were vivid and sincere. She often talked about the atmosphere of excellence at the hospital and the high level of expertise of the staff. After the presentations, the female students would run up and request a picture with Dr. Tillman and she would graciously oblige.

Dr. Tillman, and the late Dr. Leslie F. (Les) Bond Sr., were honored as Lifetime Achievers during the 7th Annual Salute to Excellence in health Care luncheon on May 12, 2007.

A native of Bristow, Oklahoma, Dr. Tillman was a past president of the board of directors of the Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center and local chapter of her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta.

She was an active member of American Medical Association, American Medical Women’s Association, and many other professional organizations. She was also a member of the White House Conference on Children and Youth, the Committee on Adoptions for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a consulting member of National Advisory Health Council to Secretary United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Dr. Tillman was an author and contributed to several medical articles.

My heart was broken when I found out that Dr. Tillman had passed away. She had recently been on my mind and was on my “to-do-list” to give her a call. I would randomly call her at times just to chat. She always asked about my family and particularly my daughters. Having served as a pediatrician for decades, Dr. Tillman always provided me with great parenting advice.

I recall when my oldest daughter was a teenager, I was complaining to Dr. Tillman that I could not get her to wear dresses and it was always a fight on Sunday mornings prior to church. Dr. Tillman with her quick wit told me to pick my battles.

She said: “Let her wear her jeans. She’s in church, isn’t she? Let it go! It’s not worth the fight.” I chuckled to myself. At the time, I did not realize this petite, well-dressed doctor was so cool and laid back. Lesson one she taught me: don’t take yourself so seriously! 

Serving as a physician is an honor and a privilege that I do not take lightly. I also recognize that I would not have had this opportunity if it were not for people like Dr. Mary Tillman paving the way for me. I am eternally grateful that our paths crossed. Dr. Tillman was a brilliant woman who understood social determinants of health before it even became the new buzz phrase.

Her grace, her style, and her love for her patients, friends, and family are the memories we shall hold near and dear to our hearts. Rest in peace Dr. Tillman!

Denise Hooks-Anderson, MD, FAAFP Family Physician, The St. Louis American Medical Accuracy Editor, can be reached at yourhealthmatters@stlamerican.com. 

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